Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Leviathan tragedy


Moby-Dick or, The WhaleMoby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Overwhelming! Seems as huge as the great whale itself!
That central story, Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the monster that has maimed him, is powerful in itself, but the impact of the book builds through all the many digressions and side stories which are fascinating and even captivating, because of the rhythm of the prose and the very acute observations of physical tasks and hard material realities: the life of the whaling town of Nantucket, with its black church and its white mariners’ church, the widows and their prayers and investments; the contractual arrangements (the crewman of a whaler gets no salary, but a percentage of the profits — if there are any — according to his expected skills); routines at sea, including Ishmael’s daydreaming while aloft as a lookout on the mast; the relations among the diverse crew, and their conversations, aspirations and fears; all the whaling lore and legends; the anatomy of the Leviathan, the enormous sperm whale; the unannounced shifts from 3d person narrative to theatrical scenes, with monologues and asides, all in present tense as in stage directions, in the rich 17th-century English of Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible. And then, after all that anticipation, the emotional charge of the final three chapters, once the Pequod catches up to the great white whale, and the three days of pursuit unto disaster.
You know the story even if you haven’t read the book, or at least one of the stories, the central one, but there are many, many other stories here, some spelled out, others alluded to, and some — including the prior lives of Ishmael, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg et alii, and the others merely suggested. I thought I must have read it in my youth, but now, having just recently finished it, I know that either I hadn’t really read it or if I had, perhaps in some abridged version, I hadn’t been able to take it all in. Maybe I just saw the movie or read the Classics Comic.

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